Big Tech CEO Fights To Curb Coal Emissions In Australia

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“To whom much is given, much will be required.” That is the lesson from chapter 12, verse 48 of the Gospel according to Luke in the New Testament. Mike Cannon-Brookes is a co-founder of Atlassian, an Australian software company that specializes in digital tools like Trello that help people collaborate. Now that he has profited from the tech boom, he is looking for ways to use his newfound wealth to reduce the carbon emissions created when coal is burned to make electricity in Australia.

AGL Energy is a one of the largest energy companies in Australia. It is also one of its biggest carbon polluters. Cannon-Brooks says the company is responsible for about 8% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the total emissions from every car in the country, and more than some entire developed countries.

The company likes to engage in lots of happy talk about how it is working to lower its emissions and include more renewable energy in its portfolio, but in reality, it has hatched a plan to “demerge” its retail power and generation units and turn them into separate entities. If that plan is allowed to proceed, AGL would continue operating its coal-powered thermal generating plants years longer.

A report by The Guardian says Cannon-Brookes believes the termination needs to come much sooner and that an intact company would be better equipped to make the transition to a renewable energy and storage giant, thereby helping to lower Australia’s greenhouse emissions significantly in the process.

At the present time, AGL says it plans to shutter its coal facilities in 2045. Cannon-Brookes believes that timeline should be moved up at least 10 years. To force AGL to take a more aggressive approach to closing its coal-powered plants, he attempted to purchase the company outright with help from Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management. When AGL rejected the buyout offer, he went ahead and bought 11% of the company’s shares using his own money.

That made him the largest single shareholder and gave him control over many of its executive decisions. According to Engadget, AGL has now canceled its “demerger” plans. In addition, both the chairman of its board of directors and its CEO have stepped down. The remaining members of the board are now conducting a review of the company’s strategy and are planning to introduce broader changes to the board as well as overall management.

Harriet Kater, a spokesperson for the Australasian Center for Corporate Responsibility, tells The Guardian, “The bloodbath in the boardroom of AGL today was years in the making and well overdue, The longest-serving members of the board have overseen the destruction of an enormous amount of shareholder value and millions of dollars wasted on a now failed demerger. The proposed strategic review must have at its heart alignment with the Paris agreement, and with that the accelerated transition out of coal-fired power generation.” She claims the current board wasted 18 months on the demerger and 5 years of under-investment in renewable energy.

Super Citizens

The technology revolution has created enormous wealth for a few individuals. Some, like Mark Zuckerberg, use that wealth to promote online flame wars sponsored by tyrants like Vladimir Putin to further enrich themselves. Others like Mike Cannon-Brooks are using their wealth to address the danger of an overheating planet in responsible ways.

“To whom much is given, much will be required” is still current today. For many who have been on the receiving end of the tech boom, very little has been reinvested in the human community. Instead, it is used to hire flotillas of lawyers and lobbyists to prevent that wealth from being taxed and to promote laws that operate exclusively in their favor.

Andrew Carnegie believed, “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” His words and those found in Luke 12:48 seem to resonate hardly at all among the leaders of the tech world. People like Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, and Peter Thiel believe they should use their wealth to tell others what to do. Elon Musk thinks the highest and best purpose of his wealth is to be the sole arbiter of what the other 8 billion people on the Earth can and cannot say in public.

The recent Carbon Bankroll Report calls out these noveau riche entrepreneurs and the corporations they created for doing far too little to address the looming climate crisis. Engadget says, “Companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and others have generally focused on reducing their own emissions by either buying renewables or installing solar and wind power at their facilities. Atlassian’s co-creator is trying to engineer change across an entire country.” That is the very definition of using one’s surplus wealth for the benefit of the human community and a model for others to emulate.

It is one thing for Amazon, Apple, Google, and others to see to their own needs, and quite another to see their surplus wealth as a sacred trust to be used for the good of the community. Mike Cannon-Brookes has set the standard for others to follow. Now it is time for them to step up and follow his lead.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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